Early predictions suggest a pandemic baby boom is not coming, in the United States or elsewhere. Financial uncertainty and the presence of a plague are not, it turns out, aphrodisiacs, nor do they tend to encourage couples to toss the contraception. Ongoing school closures might not make having additional children seem practical, either to those with older kids at home or to anyone with exasperated friends in that situation. For single people, meanwhile, lockdowns make dating rather more difficult, if not outright illegal. Is this going to be a demographic problem?

Matthew Yglesias, author of One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, and of the Slow Boring newsletter, makes the case that it does. Yglesias argues that the U.S. benefits from higher birthrates as well as more immigration. He favors policies that would make it easier for Americans to have as many children as they wish, rather than to encourage the intentionally childless to change their reproductive plans. He does acknowledge, however, that any talk of upping birthrates can be unnerving, particularly for young women.


Phoebe Maltz Bovy: A Brookings Institute study found that the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing on a “baby bust” in the United States, with an estimated dip of 300,000. This is for several reasons, some relating to economic downturns generally, and others to do with the pandemic itself. Do you think there will be a longer-term impact on the birthrate?

Matthew Yglesias: When the pandemic started, there were a lot of like jokes, like, It’s gonna be a lot of babies. But that’s not how human reproduction works in the modern world. So I think it was ultimately not that surprising. Most of our evidence from across the 20th century is that bad, stressful situations caused people to have fewer children, and they have more during good times and periods of optimism and material well being.

The trend [already] was to fewer and fewer children. A very clear pattern all throughout the 21st century. I think we might see a rebound next year, if life is better. But the pandemic has really exposed the extent to which we don’t support parents and children fully, the way schools have been closed for a long amount of time. That has really delivered on a lot of women’s fears that the burdens of parenting are going to fall especially hard on them, which is something that we’ve seen throughout most of these school closures.

And nothing that’s been done in the COVID relief bill, that Biden just signed, or in the previous things the Trump administration did, really addresses any of those concerns in a fundamental way. So I think we would probably see a slight acceleration of the trend.

Bovy: What do you think is missing specifically from Biden’s new relief bill that might have been helpful in this way?

Yglesias: Even as he’s putting a fair amount of extra money into the school system, nothing is being done in the short term to scramble the jets to get summer activities for kids up and running. The Democratic Party is very much still in COVID-caution mode. And Republicans like don’t like to spend money. It’s a very new situation, but I think a very classic pattern in which culture war tensions between left and right prevent us from coming up with any really clear or solutions to people’s childcare needs and family work balance needs.

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